They were in many ways a couple of kids, Jones sent there to create a year of separation between Braxton Miller and to wise up a bit, Thomas meeting him there to put together more tape as he tried to earn his way into the upper rungs of college football.
While Jones was already a Buckeye pledge, the receiver earned a scholarship offer from Ohio State, and Thomas committed in October 2011. The two were Buckeyes trapped in red and gray military uniforms instead of scarlet and gray jerseys, living in the hinterlands of central Virginia between Richmond and Charlottesville, not Columbus.
But at night, by the end of their tenures at Fork Union, the two would talk about what would happen when they finally got under the bright lights of Ohio Stadium – and beyond, such as the big stage that is the College Football Playoff National Championship vs. Oregon.
“It was little kid talk at the time,” Jones said. “We were 18 and 17 or something like that. That’s very kid’s dream but it’s hard to put that into reality, and it’s here now.”
This is part of the untold story of Jones. How did the so-called third-string quarterback rise from benchwarmer to the man leading Ohio State in the national championship game?
Part of it is because of his maturation over his three years on campus. Part of it is because of the prep he put in even when it appeared he’d never play.
But you can’t discount the part about how he has had a familiarity with Ohio State’s receivers from even before the time he arrived in Columbus. He played pitch and catch with Devin Smith in Hershey, Pa., long before he arrived OSU, developing a chemistry that has driven one of the most effective deep-ball combinations in Buckeye history.
And he spent one autumn living in a military school dorm room with Thomas, someone who would grow into one of his top targets this year. Thomas is the team leader with 50 catches, having pulled in 746 yards worth of grabs and nine touchdowns in 14 games. He averages 14.9 yards per grab, showing an ability to run after the catch that has made some short gainers into touchdowns this season.
On top of that, his ability to make the circus catch – showed often during the spring and most notably as he made a number of difficult grabs at OSU’s spring student appreciation practice – has started to come out as well. He made a nearly impossible grab over Maryland’s William Likely in the end zone earlier this year, but his two-handed, one-foot-down, how-did-he-do-that? grab of an Evan Spencer pass in the Sugar Bowl is the stuff of legend.
“Those type of catches made in practice, a lot of people don’t get to see on Saturday,” he said. “Sometimes they’re hit or miss. To be able to make one that day in front of the crowd, I’m reaping the benefits.”
When asked if that was the best catch of his career, Thomas said, no, adding only “to be continued…” It could come in Monday’s championship game vs. Oregon, and if it does it likely will come from the hand of Jones, the man he has developed chemistry with from the time they roomed together in sleepy Virginia.
“We would talk about Ohio State,” said Thomas, who was named the most improved player in Southern California his final year at Taft High School in Woodland Hills. “We would talk about Ohio State. He would tell me things I didn’t know. He would share information with me. We didn’t really talk about football, we were just friends at first, and then we ended up at the same school.”
Those talks became more and more serious as it became clear Thomas would be a Buckeye. On the docket was the chance to come to OSU to experience the very situation in which the two find themselves in Dallas.
“We did (talk about it),” Thomas said. “I was always a big dreamer, and he always talked about competing for a national championship. When we were at Fork Union, we would always talk about coming in and playing right away and the ultimate goal is to win a national championship and play at the highest level, to win games and contribute on the field. We’ve just been blessed to be in this situation. It’s all in front of us now.”